Fundamentals of Ethnic Politics in Modern Sri Lanka


by Dr. Rajkumar Singh 1 July 2019

In the initial years, fallowing the independence of Sri Lanka, it was believed that the country would soon attain political stability and the major ethnic groups would get integrated into one nation. But the chasm between the Sinhalese and the Tamil–the two major ethnic groups in Sri Lanka has widened since then and a fundamental shift took place in state society relations. Some in the country believe that elements within the ruling party actively promoted violence, partly to destabilise their own government in order to enhance their position in a factional struggle for control, and partly to embitter relations between Sinhalese and Tamils in order to promote Sinhalese hegemony. The government maintained that the riots were caused by violent separatist elements within the Tamil minority and by Marxists seeking to overthrow the regime and to promote a general conflagration. The anti–Tamil riots of 1958 and the insurrection of 1971 were viewed by the government in this context.Soon after independence, the island nation had adopted a Presidential system which was found unsuitable to the heterogeneous nature of Sri Lankan society pushing the country into ethnic mess. In fact, the unitary system in Sri Lanka had completely failed on account of the parochial and inhuman attitudes of the Sinhalese political society in satisfying the preserved aspirations of the multi–ethnic people and therefore, the demand of decentralisation and democratic processes had been raised continuously in order to accomplish socio–political equity. The Tamils claimed that due to Sinhalese majority, the Tamil minority can not get access in the political activities and participation in the governance and the decision making process of the country.A strong section of the people believe even today that if Sri Lanka had been provided with the federal constitution at the time of independence, the Sinhalese and the Tamil leaders might have been able to bargain with each other from their political power bases at the centre and the region and the prolonged ethnic conflict could have been prevented.

                The grievance–formation on the part of Tamils from the beginning led the making of Federal Party in Sri Lanka in 1949. It was totally devoted to the cause of a separate state for Tamil Eelam and in fact laid the foundation of two–nation theory in the country. It strongly pleaded in favour of a Tamil Eelam and stated in Party’s resolution of 1951, ‘The Tamil–speaking people of Sri Lanka constitute a nation distinct from that of Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood ; firstly that of a separate historical past, in this island at least as ancient and glorious as that of Sinhalese ; secondly by the fact of their being a linguistic entity, entirely different from that of Sinhalese with as unsurpassed classical heritage and a modern development of language which makes Tamil fully adequate for all present day needs ; and finally by reason of their territorial habitation of definite areas, which constitute over one–third of the island. The political failure of democratic system and chief political parties in resolving Tamil grievances led to the demand of a separate Tamil state, the Tamil Eelam.

Systemic faults

                Actually, the dysfunctional nature of island’s democracy remained unable to make a convincing argument that all the problems that might arise within this could be resolved within the framework of democratic institutions. As a result of the politically active young people it had created a sense of nihilism, which considers everything as permissive. In the political field, it means a belief in violence for its own sake. In that kind of situation the whole young generation would have no political aspirations except for protest for its own sake reflects as to how deeply the dysfunctional nature of Sri Lankan democracy has affected the entire nation and particularly the young. The abandonment of the rule of law and the authority of institutions which was already visible in 1958, became a much greater problem in the years that followed, with a similar political approach by subsequent governments and even radical experiments to undermine democracy and rule of law.

                For the deteriorating ethnic situation of Sri Lanka, the political system adopted in 1948 and the succeeding governments that enjoyed power in a discriminatory manner were responsible. It is said that the history of relations between the Tamils and central government has been a succession of missed opportunities. Even before Independence under the self–government allowed by the British government since 1931, communalist attitudes dominated political life, culminating in the Tamil claim for parity of Parliamentary representation between the Sinhalese majority and the minorities. Almost in the span of thirty years the political life of the island nation was run by two major political parties– UNP and SLFP. In the first phase each of these parties had a nine–year tenure–the UNP from 1947 to 1956 and SLFP from 1956 to 1965. In the second the UNP with its allies had a five-year-run, 1965-1970, while the SLFP, with its partners completed its 1970-1977 term. Despite their long and repeated innings UNP and SLFP governments, which were clearly Sinhalese dominated, had toyed with the idea of concessions, and all promises came to nothing for the minorities of Sri Lanka.

Extreme Politics

                The decade 1970s was a decisive one in the political life of Sri Lanka. Sinhalese–Tamil relations deteriorated considerably during the period of United Front rule 1970-77. The Federal Party withdrew in June 1971 from the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly when the latter voted out its resolution on language rights. In 1972, the majority of Tamil political groupings including the powerful Indian Tamil CWC formed the Tamil United Front (TUF) under the leadership of FP leader SJV Chelvanayagam for purposes of joint political action. In the same year Chelvanayagam on behalf of the TUF resigned his parliamentary seat to obtain a mandate for the establishment of a sovereign ‘Eelam Tamil, nation. The TUF, in its convention in May 1976, changed its name to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) resolving the restoration and reconstruction of free and sovereign, secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam in order to safeguard the very existence of Tamil nation in this country. The Sinhalese paradigm of one country, one nation, one language and one people compelled Tamil youths to rise against Sinhalese chauvinism.

                As a result of the policies of pro–Sinhala governments in Sri Lanka the two dominant sections of Tamil parties–the Federal Party and Tamil Congress united to form the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1975 and it, in its Vaddukoddai resolution, adopted in of 14 May 1976, called for the creation of a separate Tamil state of Eelam. Besides citing the existence of historical Tamil Kingdom in the southern Jaffna districts as the legal basis for a claim to the Eelam state, nine additional reasons were given: the disfranchisement of Indian Tamils (1948 and 1949); Sinhalese colonisation of traditional Tamil lands; the Sinhala Only Act; the favoured position of Buddhism: inequality of opportunity; severance of ties with South India; permitting and unleashing communal violence against Tamils; terrorism against Tamil youth; and the 1972 constitution. In reaction to the long biased policy of pro- Sinhala government Tamil militancy emerged in Tamil areas with plenty of Tamil militant organisations to fight for their rights against the unending oppressive rule.

Tamil frustration

                With the Tamil political leaders, failure in political bargaining and power politics, Tamil youths raised arms against the government. The armed uprising gave birth to political violence as the only means. The armed struggle for the establishment of Tamil Eelam manifested in a variety of ways ranging from political protest to ethnic violence and terrorist insurgencies to guerilla warfare and ultimately the ethnic conflict became a central problem in Sri Lankan politics. It was the failure of many years of peaceful demonstration by Tamil leaders in order to win their freedom from the successive Sinhala majority governments, who showed no concern for the Tamil grievances. In addition, it was the result of political and cultural rivalry between the Sinhalese and the Lankan Tamils and the ineptitude of the national leadership in reconciling their differences. While some have interpreted this ethnic rivalry as a clash between two ‘subnationalism’ that of the dominated Buddhist elite and of the minority Tamil elite of the northern peninsula,more often it has been in political terms in which the Sinhalese have consistently sought to diminish the cultural and political salience of the Tamils in post–Independence Sri Lanka.

The political frustration had finally resulted in support for separatism, and the same chauvinists were able to say that they had been right all along. Historically, each of the political parties–the UNP and the SLFP, while in opposition, had played the role of a spoilsport. Ever since 1948 whenever the Government had taken and initiative to offer some accommodation to the Tamils, the then opposition had sought to politicise the issue by whipping up chauvinistic sentiments among the majority Sinhalese population. The evolution of Tamil extremism around the mid seventies was of crucial importance that proved fatal in post-1970 era in the history of modern Sri Lanka.